TV writer and producer Stephen Kronish was driving down the freeway, having worked tirelessly on The Kennedys miniseries for the History Channel for months, when he received a heartbreaking phone call from a fellow producer.
“He said, ‘Are you driving?’ And I said yeah,” Kronish tells Yahoo Entertainment. “He said, ‘Well, you’re gonna [want to] pull over, because they’re not gonna air it.’”
The miniseries, which ultimately premiered on the Reelz channel 10 years ago this week, was embroiled in controversy from the start. The History Channel’s December 2009 announcement that it would dramatize the story of the political dynasty was followed just two months later with a front-page New York Times story on how, even before the project had a cast, much less a premiere date, it faced fierce opposition. It said that the involvement of Joel Surnow, the politically conservative series creator, “raised alarms among Kennedy partisans.” Just as damaging was that President John F. Kennedy’s adviser Theodore Sorenson, who died in October 2010, and liberal documentary filmmaker Robert Greenwald were outspoken critics of early drafts of scripts they had obtained. Greenwald even created a 12-minute video featuring Sorensen and several historians calling out inaccuracies. It was packaged with a petition against it at StopKennedySmears.com.
“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I read this,” David Nasaw, the author of several books, including a Pulitzer Prize finalist about Kennedy patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy, said in the clip. “I want to laugh, because the portraits are just so god awful, stupid. I want to cry, because I fear that if they’re successful and get this thing on the air with credible looking actors, a generation is gonna get its history from this nonsense.”
‘Not a fit’
The criticism was severe. Strong enough — and now loud enough, thanks to the Gray Lady — to have an effect, despite an an all-star cast that included Katie Holmes, Greg Kinnear, Barry Pepper and Tom Wilkinson. It was something that would have made it difficult for the broadcaster to find advertisers, and it would have been an unwelcome project to Kennedy family members, as they marked the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration with events in Washington, D.C., and Boston.
The History Channel stood behind the series at first. They brought in reputable historians to vet the script and they made changes — Kronish says every word in the final script was approved — but it wasn’t enough. In January 2011, the cable network released a statement:
“Upon completion of the production of The Kennedys, History has decided not to air the 8-part miniseries on the network. While the film is produced and acted with the highest quality, after viewing the final product in its totality, we have concluded this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand. We recognize historical fiction is an important medium for storytelling and commend all the hard work and passion that has gone into the making of the series, but ultimately deem this as the right programming decision for our network.”
Kronish believes that the fiercely protective Kennedy family, specifically Caroline Kennedy and Maria Shriver, used their influence to kill the series. The Hollywood Reporter said in January 2011 that that’s exactly what happened. Reps for Kennedy and Shriver did not respond to Yahoo Entertainment’s requests for comment.
“It was a great experience, and it only really got squirrelly actually after we were finished shooting and preparing to air it, and that was really the disappointing part of it,” Kronish says. “I guess if the History Channel at the time had admitted the reason they were pulling it had nothing to do with historical inaccuracies and everything to do with business, maybe I would have felt better about it. But the fact that they chalked it up to historical inaccuracies made me, frankly, and everybody associated with it, I think, it diminished us, because it made it seem like we had a political agenda to begin with and we didn’t.”
Drinking the ‘Kennedy Kool-Aid’
It wasn’t just a job for Kronish, who says JFK is the first president he remembers and admits he “drank the Kennedy Kool-Aid.” Before he had even joined the project, he made a point to tell Surnow, who he had worked for on the Fox action series 24, “If you’re looking for somebody to do a hatchet job on the Kennedys, get someone else.”
Kronish’s intention was to give a true picture of the president and his family. He didn’t use one book as his source, but a sampling of the massive amount of material out there. Some scenes were devised taking what he knew about the family and inferring. So viewers see JFK deftly handling the Cuban Missile Crisis, but they also see his brother Bobby chastising him for flirting with a campaign worker.
“They were people, I think, with great gifts and great flaws, and the idea to me of doing the show was to show both,” Kronish says. “I believe, and I will believe for the rest of my life, that we are alive today because of the way he handled the [Cuban Missile Crisis.] If it had been Trump, if it had been Nixon, if it had been Johnson, I don’t think we would be here.”
Kronish remembers receiving the first negative feedback from the network for a scene in which Jackie tells Joe that she’s going to divorce Jack. Knowing that this will effectively end Jack’s political career, particularly because he’s Catholic, Joe offers Jackie $1 million to stay. (The incident is mentioned in the prominent Kennedy tome, Jackie, Ethel, Joan by J. Randy Taraborrelli, with the additional detail that the money would be put in a trust fund for Jackie’s future children.) Kronish recalls being told that he couldn’t depict Jackie accepting the money; it wasn’t a good look. In the finished product, viewers don’t see her accept or decline the offer.
“That … sticks out in my mind as one of the first times I felt, well, OK, you know, we’re now facing a question of whether we’re going to be historically accurate or are we doing this to make the Kennedys look better?” Kronish says.
The History Channel had no comment for this story.
Rebirth at Reelz
Lucky for Kronish and crew, the nascent Reelz channel scooped it up to be its first original scripted show, so it would be seen, especially with all the buzz. Of course, it had a much smaller reach than History. Kronish had never heard of it.
Still, the first night of the show set a ratings record of 1.9 million viewers for Reelz. Reviews were mixed. Slate called it “blandly admiring.” The Washington Post‘s TV critic quipped, “you could get more controversy and upsetting imagery by simply Googling the Kennedys.” But some of the performances were praised and, when the Emmys were handed out, The Kennedys picked up 10 nominations and four wins, including one for Pepper in the best actor category.
Taraborrelli, the author of several books about the Kennedys, was one of the people watching in between writing sessions on a book about the family’s post-White House years, and he was a fan. Interestingly, he’s never heard anything from the Kennedy family about any of his projects.
“The History Channel should never have let it go,” Taraborrelli says. “I just don’t think that they understood what they had, because it was such an empathetic, human portrayal of the Kennedys that was not at all, you know, sort of the caricature portrait that had been shown about the Kennedys in years prior. For me, that’s what made it stand out.”
Taraborrelli, who had no involvement in The Kennedys series, was delighted when his book After Camelot was adapted for a TV sequel. It became the 2017 miniseries The Kennedys After Camelot, which again aired on Reelz.
Kronish signed on for another round. He was interested in telling the story of Ted Kennedy, who wasn’t really a part of the first series. Besides, working on The Kennedys hadn’t been all bad.
“It was one of the great experiences of my life and my career,” Kronish says, “and I wouldn’t change it, even knowing the way it turned out.”
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